Cover Story

Capitol punishment

Justice grinds slowly as Congress considers whether and how to punish President Clinton in light of charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and abuse of power. As the drama plays out on Capitol Hill, WORLD looks back at the crucial first week, through the eyes and experience of two Christians who are key members of the House Judiciary Committee, the panel with the constitutional duty of weighing articles of impeachment.

Issue: "Clinton: Capitol crimes?," Sept. 26, 1998

in Washington - Bill Clinton on Friday, Sept. 11, gave the nation an afternoon of infamy. Seven months after Monica Lewinsky first became a household name and a late-night television punchline, independent counsel Ken Starr had finally delivered his 445-page report on the perjury and obstruction of justice scandal. After a frustrating, 48-hour wait precipitated by partisan wrangling over whether taxpayers should be allowed to see the report that cost them $4.4 million, the report was public at last, placed on the World Wide Web where hundreds of thousands attempted to read it immediately. But as House Judiciary Committee member Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) discovered, the wait wasn't over yet, even for those charged with assessing the president's fitness to stay in office. With the clock ticking on his 2:40 flight back to South Carolina, members of Mr. Inglis's staff were constantly checking both the Internet and the House's own intranet, trying in vain to obtain a copy of the report. Finally, a call from the Judiciary Committee office: Members could show up in person to pick up a hard copy. With his press secretary waiting to drive him to the airport, Mr. Inglis dashed over to get his hands on the report. Not so simple. The committee, as it turned out, had only a summary available, and USAirways wasn't going to wait. Standing in line at gate 39 of Reagan National Airport, Mr. Inglis used his cell phone to arrange for someone to bring a copy of the full report to Charlotte's Douglas International Airport, where he had a brief layover before continuing to Greenville. He devoured the summary on the hour-long flight and looked forward to getting the rest of the story as soon as he touched down. Again, not so simple. The person who met him in Charlotte had only the summary that Mr. Inglis had already read. Only upon his arrival in Greenville was the congressman able to plunge into his constitutional duty: There, "I was finally able to get my hands on the report," he told WORLD late Saturday night as he drove home from a day of campaigning. "I've basically been reading it ever since." Back in Washington, Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), hit an Internet site at 2:20. His hard copy arrived from the Judiciary Committee 90 minutes later. But even before Mr. Hutchinson found the report online, the president's men had carried out a preemptive strike of sorts. "What's ironic is that while I was meeting with Republican members on the Judiciary Committee, the response from the president was delivered by courier. So we got the president's rebuttal before we even got to see the Starr report." It was a typically politicized beginning to one of the most crucial weekends in recent political history. With months of speculation and innuendo finally at an end, the 36 members of the House Judiciary Committee were now faced with the prospect of unleashing a constitutional force exercised only twice before in the history of the American presidency. The first weekend would be crucial. On that, at least, the pundits were unanimous. Although hearings and debates will likely drag on for months, most members were expected to form their basic opinions during their first few days with Mr. Starr's report. The future of the Clinton administration could well be riding on first impressions: Were there any surprises? Was it "just" about sex? Did he clearly lie to the grand jury? Were his definitions defensible? Were there holes in Mr. Starr's case? With so much on the line, Reps. Inglis and Hutchinson-both outspoken Christians-agreed to let WORLD readers in on their thoughts and activities as the weekend unfolded. Mr. Hutchinson's office was buzzing all day Friday. "There was anticipation and excitement," he said of his staff, who were detailed to specific tasks such as accessing the Internet and making copies. "With a congressional staff, you're looking at young people that are being a part of living history, so they were very excited." In his more mature, laid-back, Southern way, Mr. Hutchinson was excited, too. Although the vast majority of his colleagues headed home to campaign for elections just six weeks away, Mr. Hutchinson and three or four other GOP members stayed behind to begin working on the task at hand. "I felt like I had to have time to review the report, but also to try to look at some of the accompanying materials," he said in a late-night interview from his apartment in suburban Virginia. "It's hard to set aside that time, and we need to move on this thing." As a lawyer and former United States attorney, Mr. Hutchinson was most concerned by the second of Mr. Starr's "eleven possible grounds for impeachment": that the president lied to the grand jury during his testimony on Aug. 17. That was the section he turned to first, about 300 pages into the report. He also looked for any argument tying the Lewinsky matter back to the Whitewater investigation, which Mr. Starr was originally appointed to investigate. He admitted to "some disappointment" that no such connection was made. Finally, he waded into all the sordid details. "To a large extent, I was prepared for it because of all the rumors and leaks.... [But] it's still quite shocking when you read the detailed nature of it and the thoroughness of the evidence. I know we're just hearing one side here, but it raises very serious allegations and supports them quite well." On a more personal level, he said, "My first reaction was as a father. I've got teenagers. In fact, I've got one daughter who works here in Washington. So you're incensed and enormously bothered by the seamy side of this report. "Then you also react as someone who loves the presidency and what it represents. You just hurt that our country has to be brought through this. To think that these things allegedly occurred in the White House is just startling." Just as startling, perhaps, was the deluge of media requests. With the biggest political scandal since Watergate threatening to sweep away an administration, the media were desperate for interviews with Judiciary Committee members. Mr. Hutchinson's weekend media blitz included 17 national TV appearances, eight Arkansas TV stations, scores of radio interviews, and calls from about a dozen periodicals. On a typical weekend, according to a spokesperson, he might do a total of three media interviews. When he spoke to WORLD, Mr. Hutchinson had just returned home from an appearance on CNN's Larry King Live. Larry King invitations are not the norm for first-term representatives, and the congressman admitted that he'd been a little nervous. "Obviously it's one of the top news shows. Your comments have to be weighed very seriously because they can come back to haunt you." What really haunted the congressman, though, was a conversation that took place after the cameras stopped rolling. J. Philip Wogaman, the president's Washington pastor, was also on the panel that night. After the show, he told Mr. Hutchinson that he thought the country should forgive the president. Mr. Hutchinson's reply: "Then what do you say to all the people who have asked for forgiveness but yet had to be held accountable for their wrongdoing?" Mr. Wogaman would only answer that extending forgiveness would be a great "moral uplifting" for the country. "I think that shows the difficulty we'll have in dealing with this," Mr. Hutchinson told WORLD. "As a nation, we do have an enormous capacity to forgive. I'm looking at NBC news right now, and there's a sign on some business that says, 'We forgive you Bill Clinton.' That's what we're going to have to deal with." Bob Inglis, meanwhile, had to deal with Ann Lewis. The White House communications director was on the Today show Saturday morning, trying to explain away the "unfortunate incident" with Monica Lewinsky. After Ms. Lewis finished her defense, the host turned to Mr. Inglis. "I nearly blew a gasket," he recalled. "I said 'First of all, I cannot believe this has been described as an incident. It was not an incident. Ken Starr is alleging 10 sexual encounters over a protracted period of time. These are multiple incidents. Further, given the state's case ... it has the terrible look of a sexual predator pursuing this 21-year-old intern in the White House, with all the enormous power differential that you have there.'" By the time Saturday was over, Ms. Lewis may have regretted getting the congressman's day off to such a bad start. "After the Today show this morning, I was around the state and I had quite a few people seeking me out to tell me of their revulsion with the report, to tell me of their anger," the South Carolina congressman said. "They're beginning to realize that Bill Clinton is using us as if we had 'abuse me' written on our foreheads. It's as though he thinks he can debase the office of the presidency, humiliate us internationally, abuse the White House, and we'll just take it and say, 'That's fine.'" Mr. Inglis had no shortage of opportunities to share those views with a much larger than usual audience. "The proceedings make all Judiciary Committee members much more interesting to the national media than we ever were before," he laughed after sharing his opinions with the BBC, CNBC, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the San Diego Union-Tribune, in addition to the Today show and a host of local media. "It becomes a matter of sorting through which ones you feel a responsibility to respond to." Mr. Inglis worried that the across-the-board moral outrage evident just a week ago was now degenerating into partisan wrangling. He heard Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), for instance, say that despite any laws that may have been broken, the president should remain in office because of the good he was doing for the country. "He's suggesting we should keep this man in power regardless of his trouncing of our principles. If Charlie thought through that I think he'd realize that he's advocating a rule of men rather than a rule of law. In other words, as long as you've got power and are able to obscure the facts, you can continue to wield that power unconstrained by principle. The risk of that is that we end up in tyranny because there is no principle constraining the exercise of power." Still, Mr. Inglis held out hope for the conduct of his committee. "The Judiciary Committee is an extremely partisan committee," he admitted. "We have some of the most liberal members of Congress on there as well as some good conservatives-although I wouldn't call them the most conservative in the House. My hope is that there are nevertheless enough people of good faith who will say, 'We're going to be open with this.' We've got a shot at that kind of bipartisanship. We're not going to get them all, but we've got an opportunity for several to join us." After a hectic day of campaigning for the Senate and condemning the president's actions, Mr. Inglis took Sunday off from all political and media activity. But there was no escaping the scandal. That morning at Greenville's Second Presbyterian Church, he was besieged by fellow worshippers offering words of encouragement. "We got quite a bit of feedback at church from people who said that they were very concerned, that they were praying for those of us on the Judiciary Committee. They were also very supportive of the position that there are consequences to wrongdoing. Yes, we do want to extend grace, but that's with full understanding that there's a consequence to wrongdoing. Several said the president's understanding of repentance doesn't include any idea of consequences. It's more like, 'Oh well, I said I'm sorry, let's move along now.' That's a rather foreshortened view of repentance." Back in Washington, Asa Hutchinson became one of the first people outside Ken Starr's office to see the weight of evidence against the president. With his colleagues home in their congressional districts, Mr. Hutchinson used the quiet of Saturday morning to walk over to the Ford Building, where the infamous 36 boxes of evidence were under 24-hour armed guard. Guards checked his identification, asked him to sign in, and made sure he brought nothing into the room with him. After four hours of sifting through the boxes, the entire process was reversed. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and member Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) were there, along with a handful of designated congressional staffers. No one from the White House was allowed inside. The purpose of the research, Mr. Hutchinson said, was to check the supporting evidence of the independent counsel's report. "We have to see whether there is sufficient basis for a formal impeachment inquiry and whether Judge Starr's referral is well supported in the record. In fairness you have to review [all the evidence] to see if the excerpts that Judge Starr took were taken out of context. So it's really a fairness process." It's also a long, slow process. With access to the materials severely restricted, overworked members have to do almost all the research themselves, at the time and place dictated by the House rules. By the end of the weekend, Mr. Hutchinson was looking forward to opening the evidence up to public examination, if for no other reason than simplifying the research process. Late last week, the House took its first big step in that direction, voting on the release of the full, four-hour videotape of President Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony. Until more materials are made public, Mr. Hutchinson could not share his impressions of the supporting evidence. But he did say that "obviously Ken Starr lays out his strongest case in the public report, in the base text. That's going to make or break his case." No one has any illusions that making the case will be an easy matter. Some fear a behind-the-scenes campaign by the White House to dredge up dirt on the president's critics on the Judiciary Committee. That scenario has enough credibility that Chairman Hyde, not usually a man given to conspiracy theories, on Monday circulated a memo to his members assuring them that any effort to intimidate or obstruct the committee would be treated as a criminal act. Just two days later, the Internet magazine Salon published an exposé of a long-term affair in the 1960s between Mr. Hyde and a Chicago hairstylist. Mr. Hyde confirmed the affair the same day, but added, "The statute of limitations has long since passed on my youthful indiscretions." He charged the affair was being publicized now in an effort to intimidate him, but vowed it wouldn't work. "I intend to fulfill my constitutional duty and deal judiciously with the serious felony allegations presented to Congress in the Starr report." Another assurance from Mr. Hyde made a deep impression on Bob Inglis. Despite the pressure to look for an easy out-such as the suggestion by some that the House merely censure the president, even though no such remedy exists in the Constitution-"Henry was emphatic in saying that we are going to follow the Constitution and the rule of law to its logical consequences. That may be new for Bill Clinton. He's not used to being confronted with consequences. He's used to spin and damage control. Now there are forces set in motion that if they are played out with the majesty of the Constitution may result in consequences to this president." The "majesty of the Constitution" is something that appears to weigh heavily on almost everyone involved in the process. The historic nature of the debate and the intense media spotlight have made most members "somber," according to Mr. Hutchinson. "We know we're going to be judged not just by the voters, but by history. And that makes everybody want to do it right."

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Job-seeker friendly

    Southern California churches reach the unemployed through job fairs